The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘world wide web’

Superstition & Computer Technology

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 27, 2009

Today I saw a great post over at the Tech Republic blog about the “10 habits of superstitious users” of computers.  I wanted to pass this along to you, partially because it is an excellent contemporary example of loose & magical thinking.  I am also sharing it partially out of deference to my wife, who has to deal with the computer illiterate all-too-often who view the computer as either some kind of malevolent entity or a magical box.

Here is the main text of the article [note that I’ve added relevant links to the text]…

Superstition: A belief, not based on human reason or scientific knowledge, that future events may be influenced by one’s behavior in some magical or mystical way (Wiktionary).

In 1947, the psychologist B. F. Skinner reported a series of experiments in which pigeons could push a lever that would randomly either give them a food pellet, or nothing. Think of it as a sort of one-armed bandit that the pigeons played for free. Skinner found, after a while, that some of the pigeons started acting oddly before pushing the lever. One moved in counterclockwise circles, one repeatedly stuck its head into the upper corner of the cage, and two others would swing their heads back and forth in a sort of pendulum motion. He suggested that the birds had developed “superstitious behaviors” by associating getting the food with something they happened to be doing when they actually got it — and they had wrongly concluded that if they did it again, they were more likely to get the pellet. Essentially, they were doing a sort of food-pellet dance to better their odds.

Although computer users are undoubtedly smarter than pigeons, users who really don’t understand how a computer works may also wrongly connect some action of theirs with success (and repeat it), or associate it with failure (and avoid it like the plague). Here are some of the user superstitions I’ve encountered.

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Posted in internet | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

More Martian Madness

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 6, 2009

My last entry focused on a supposed “alien” skull found on the surface of Mars, which is really nothing more than a classic case of pareidolia. Well, just today I received a bogus email from a colleague which recycles the old “Mars is going to be closer than EVER!” myth which has propagated over the last few years.


The email reads, in part…

The Red Planet is about to be spectacular! This month and next, Earth is catching up with Mars in an encounter that will culminate in the closest approach between the two planets in recorded history. The next time Mars may come this close is in 2287. Due to the way Jupiter’s gravity tugs on Mars and perturbs its orbit, astronomers can only be certain that Mars has not come this close to Earth in the Last 5,000 years, but it may be as long as 60,000 years before it happens again.

The encounter will culminate on August 27th when Mars comes to within 34,649,589 miles of Earth and will be (next to the moon) the brightest object in the night sky. It will attain a magnitude of -2.9 and will appear 25.11 arc seconds wide. At a modest 75-power magnification Mars will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye. Mars will be easy to spot. At the beginning of August it will rise in the east at 10 p.m. and reach its azimuth at about 3 a.m.

By the end of August when the two planets are closest, Mars will rise at nightfall and reach its highest point in the sky at 12:30 a.m. That’s pretty convenient to see something that no human being has seen in recorded history. So, mark your calendar at the beginning of August to see Mars grow progressively brighter and brighter throughout the month. Share this with your children and grandchildren. NO ONE ALIVE TODAY WILL EVER SEE THIS AGAIN

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Posted in internet, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Death and Rebirth of Science Reporting?

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 1, 2009

There has been a disturbing trend in recent years in journalistic circles: the decline of science journalism in many areas of the media, specifically print media (newspapers, magazines, etc). However, it’s not all bad news, because Internet-based blogging provides a new venue for science reporting.

science blogs

As this article in NatureNews states…

Traditional journalists are increasingly looking to such [science-based] sites to find story ideas (see ‘Rise of the blogs’). At the same time, they rely heavily on the public-relations departments of scientific organizations. As newspapers employ fewer people with science-writing backgrounds, these press offices are employing more. Whether directly or indirectly, scientists and the institutions at which they work are having more influence than ever over what the public reads about their work.

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Posted in skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Federal Funding of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 8, 2009

In recent news, it seems the eight year ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research will be coming to an end on Monday as President Obama overturns President Bush’s restrictions on the research. I view this as a very good thing, though there are those who do not. This post will take on some of the more nonsensical claims about why taxpayer money shouldn’t fund such research or scientific research in general. In many cases those arguing against such research are doing so either because they do not understand the science, or they have some ideological or pseudoscientific agenda to push.

**Aside: For a good primer on embryonic stem cell research, check out this link from the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research.

Some people claim that embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) is unnecessary. They will often state that it hasn’t led to any cures or treatments, so this is proof that it isn’t needed – they instead insist that the only research to be done with stem cells should use adult stem cells (ASC). However, this is a circular argument because many of those making this argument are the very people who have been holding up the federal funding of ESCR, and in a vacuum of funding then of course it isn’t possible to do any research – duh!

As for ASCR, we have studied adult stem cells for over 40 years, and while that area of research has yielded some treatments, adult stem cells are fundamentally limited in their application. This is because embryonic stem cells are what are called pluripotent, which means they can develop (or be developed) into any kind of tissue in the human body, whereas adult stem cells cannot.

Now don’t get me wrong – I am not in any way arguing against ASCR. Quite the contrary, I think we should be researching all avenues of stem cell research, including ESCR.

Another argument made against ESCR is that it is immoral to destroy a blastocyst in the process of removing stem cells. This is another version of the “right-to-life” argument that is advanced by some segments of society, most notably the Catholic Church. Some people make the argument that because a blastocyst is a potential human being, then it must be granted the rights of an actual human being. I find this form of argumentation to be patently ludicrous – equating a blob of less than 50 cells with a real living, breathing person is just silly. One might as well argue that blastocysts are also potential taxpayers, so they should also be taxed just like normal wage earners, or at least the potential parents should be taxed.

At it’s heart, the “right-to-life” argument is a moral & ethical question about how one defines a person. I can understand that some people have a real moral hangup with ESCR for that reason, so I have some advice for them – don’t use the medical treatments that will likely result from the research as opposed to demanding that the rest of society kowtow to their Luddite tendencies.

The third argument which I have heard made against the federal funding of ESCR is that federal funding is unnecessary because some progress on ESCR has already been made with funding from private sources. While it is true that such progress has been made, it is also true that the limitations on federal funding have also slowed down private work. With President Bush’s bans on the funding of ESCR, research in the private sector was also detrimentally affected – so lifting the restrictions on federal funding is actually good for private research!

Not to mention, without federal funding of science in other areas of research, it is highly doubtful that we’d be where we are today. I recently got into an exchange about this subject with a friend of a friend, and she set me off when she started to whine about how it isn’t right that the government use taxpayer money for funding scientific institutions like NASA. I mentioned to her that the entire reason why we have weather satellites (or any satellite technology, for that matter) is because of the research that NASA did – with federal dollars – way back in the 1950s and 60s. So, I said in response, if you are using any form of technology related to satellites, you are directly benefiting from the investment the government made in space science & rocketry research over a generation ago.

I find it ironic that some ignoramuses make such ludicrous and ill-informed arguments on the Internet & World Wide Web. They don’t realize that the Web was developed – through funding with public tax dollars – in the late 1980s at CERN (a particle physics research lab) as a method of allowing physics researchers to share data easily from one side of the huge institution to another. Eventually the Web technology expanded to the university communities and then to society at large. So, for these morons to be arguing against the funding of science with public money – and to make the argument on the Internet/Web – is both hilarious & sad at the same time. Without realizing it, they are showing their hypocrisy for all to see!

In closing, I am pleased to see that it seems we are entering a time where science & our scientific institutions are being respected once again. It’s just a shame that some people still don’t get it.

Posted in politics, science funding | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

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